Thirteen Days (2000) - Northern Illinois University

Thirteen Days (2000)
Artemus Ward
Dept. of Political Science
Northern Illinois University
[email protected]
• The Kennedys had to overcome the legacy of their father—
specifically his failed views of foreign policy in the run-up to
• The Bay of Pigs was President Kenney’s first major foreign policy
test and he failed miserably. He redoubled his efforts to oust
• The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred with this history as prelude.
• The film portrays the two-week period when the U.S. came to
brink of nuclear war. At the same time, however, there are some
major problems.
• In this lecture we will go over some important background
information and correct the misleading information in the film.
Film’s Origin
• While the movie carries the same name as
the book Thirteen Days written by Bobby
Kennedy in 1969, it is in fact based on a
different book, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the
White House During the Cuban Missile
Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow.
• The Missiles of October (1974), was the TV
film based on Kennedy's book.
• The 2000 film contains some newly
declassified information not available to the
earlier production such as the shooting down
of a U2 reconnaissance aircraft over Cuba
during the crisis.
Film Inaccuracies
• Yet the film is historically inaccurate and misleading in at least two crucial
1. Still living Kennedy administration officials and contemporary historians,
including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Advisor Ted Sorensen (above), and Secretary
of Defense Robert McNamara, criticized the film for the depiction of Special
Assistant Kenneth O'Donnell as chief motivator of Kennedy and others during
the crisis. McNamara reacted in a PBS NewsHour interview:
– "For God's sakes, Kenny O'Donnell didn't have any role whatsoever in the missile
crisis; he was a political appointment secretary to the President; that's absurd."
– According to McNamara, the duties performed by O'Donnell in the film are closer
to the role Sorensen played during the actual crisis: "It was not Kenny O'Donnell
who pulled us all together—it was Ted Sorensen."
The Kennedy’s preoccupation with overthrowing Castro and returning Cuba
to a capitalist state under the American sphere of influence was downplayed
at best and ignored at worst. The Cuban Missile Crisis cannot be decoupled
from the Bay of Pigs and Operation Mongoose. In this sense the Kennedy’s
were not the peace-loving, isolationists that many Kennedy-cult liberals make
them out to be.
The Film’s Reception
• The film cost $80 million to make and returned
$67 million box office worldwide – a commercial
• Critics were generally positive, though not
overwhelmingly so.
In the Shadow of Their Father:
Overcoming the Legacy of Joseph P. Kennedy
• The grandson of Irish immigrants, Joseph P. Kennedy
(left) was the son of a local Boston saloon owner and
political leader.
• He graduated from Harvard and married Rose
Fitzgerald, the daughter of Boston’s popular mayor
John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald; merging two of
the city’s most prominent political families.
• Joe Sr. went into banking and soon became an expert
on the unregulated stock market. He made a fortune,
selling just prior to the crash, and diversified his
investments to real estate, importing liquor, and
making movies in Hollywood.
• President Roosevelt named him the first director of
the new Securities and Exchange Commission.
• His future seemed bright and he set his sights on the
presidency. His goal: to become the first Irish-Catholic
In the Shadow of Their Father:
Overcoming the Legacy of Joseph P. Kennedy
In 1938, FDR appointed Kennedy as Ambassador to Britain
at a time when the Nazis were intensifying their conquest
of Europe.
Kennedy aligned himself with British Prime Minister
Neville Chamberlain (left) and supported appeasement of
Kennedy even sought private meetings with Hitler, with
out FDR’s approval, was opposed to military and
economic aid for Great Britain, retreated to the English
countryside during the Nazi bombing of London—even
when the Royal Family and British government remained
in London—and was quoted in newspapers as saying that
democracy was finished.
A public outcry ensued and he lost the confidence of the
Roosevelt administration.
He resigned in November 1940 and went on to oppose
FDR’s re-nomination for a third term as president in 1940.
In the Shadow of Their Father:
Overcoming the Legacy of Joseph P. Kennedy
• Joe was afraid that his sons would be forced to
go to war should the U.S. enter the conflict and
positioned himself for a possible presidential run.
• But his popularity was irretrievably low to allow
for such a bid and he spent WWII on the
sidelines while his sons went off to fight.
• Joe and Rose had nine children including:
– the eldest Joe Jr. who was killed at age 29 in
– the eldest daughter Rose Marie who was
lobotomized at age 23 and institutionalized the
rest of her life
– and the second oldest daughter Kathleen “Kick”
who was killed in a plane crash in Europe at 28.
• Photo caption:
• Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.,
Kathleen Kennedy, and John
F. Kennedy, sons and
daughter of United States
Ambassador to England
Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., arrive
at the House of Parliament
in London to hear Prime
Minister Chamberlain's
announcement that a state
of war existed between
England and Germany,
September 1939.
• By age 27, John—known as
“Jack”—had lost his older
brother, his sister Rosie, and
four years later, Kick—the
sister he was closest to.
John F. Kennedy: War Hero
• As a child and young man Jack was perennially
sick and the never took anything seriously. He
was a jokester always playing second-fiddle to his
older brother Joe—his father’s favorite and the
golden boy who everyone expected to be
president one day.
• Jack’s health problems disqualified him for the
Army but through his father’s influence he was
able to join the Navy and worked at a desk job.
But he wanted to see action and after Pearl
Harbor he was given command of a patrol
torpedo (PT) boat.
• His ship was rammed by a Japanese destroyer
near the Solomon Islands in the south pacific, he
rescued his crew, and was awarded a medal for
his heroics. A subsequent Hollywood film called
PT-109 (1963) starring Cliff Robertson portrays
the incident.
John F. Kennedy:
Road to the White
29-year-old John Kennedy campaigns for a
congressional seat In the election of 1946. Seen here
left to right are Ted Williams, Eddie Pellagrini, JFK and
Hank Greenberg at Fenway Park, Boston.
• After Joe Jr.’s death in the war, his father’s ambitions
transferred on to Jack who was now expected to take his
brother’s place and climb the political ladder on the way
to becoming what his father, and now his dead brother,
could not: the first Irish-Catholic president.
• Jack won his bid for the U.S. House and Senate and
married Jacqueline Bouvier.
The Bay of Pigs
Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries took control of Cuba in 1959 and moved quickly to
transform the country from a capitalist economic system to a communist system.
On their way out of office, the Eisenhower administration had created a plan to
overthrow Castro. The plan, led by the CIA with help from the U.S. military, was for an
invasion of Cuba by a counter-revolutionary insurgency composed of U.S.-trained antiCastro Cuban exiles led by CIA paramilitary officers.
The intention was to invade Cuba and instigate an uprising among the Cuban people in
hopes of removing Castro from power.
A little over 3 months into his presidency, Jack approved the plan.
But it failed miserably. The Soviet and Cuban governments knew the attack was coming.
Indeed the CIA knew the Soviets knew but did not inform Kennedy.
Two days before the invasion, the CIA secretly bombed Cuban airfields. When the Cuba
accused the U.S. of the attacks, the U.S. denied it and claimed it was counterrevolutionaries.
On April 17, 1961, 1,500 U.S.-trained Cubans landed on the island but no direct U.S. air
support was provided. Within two days the Cuban government had captured or killed
the invading exiles, and Kennedy was forced to negotiate for the release of the 1,189
survivors. After twenty months, Cuba released the captured exiles in exchange for
$53 million worth of food and medicine.
Castro felt the U.S. would most assuredly try again so he sought closer ties with the
Soviet Union including a missile defense system.
• This April 1961 file photo shows a group of Cuban counterrevolutionaries - members of Assault Brigade 2506 - after
their capture in the failed U.S.-sponsored invasion, at Bay of
Pigs, Cuba. (MIGUEL VINAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Operation Mongoose
After the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy stepped up his pursuit of Castro and Cuba. He
approved this CIA program of propaganda, psychological warfare, sabotage, and
assassination attempts in order to foment a Cuban revolt.
Bobby Kennedy was ultimately in charge of the program.
33 plans were considered and some were carried out including use of American Green
Berets; destruction of Cuban sugar crops, oil refineries, sugar mill, power plants,
bridges, and sawmills; and mining of harbors.
One plan would have had the U.S. engage in real and simulated attacks, including
terrorism inside the U.S., which would be blamed on the Cuban government.
Many individual plans were devised by the CIA to assassinate Castro. Plans to discredit
Castro in the eyes of the Cuban public included contaminating his clothing
with chemicals that would make his trademark beard fall out and spraying a
broadcasting studio with hallucinogens before a televised speech. Assassination plots
included poisoning a box of Castro's favorite cigars, placing explosive seashells in his
favorite diving spots, and providing a Cuban official with a ballpoint pen rigged with a
poisonous hypodermic needle.
Kennedy ordered a suspension of Operation Mongoose during the Cuban Missile Crisis
but operations continued anyway. They were escalated after the Crisis eased.
With a budget of $50 million per year and 2,500 personnel including 500 Americans the
program lasted from 1961 to at least 1975 and possibly into the 1980s and even
Ultimately Operation Mongoose failed and has been dubbed by critics as “the largest
operation of international terrorism in the world.”
“The Attorney General opened
the meeting by saying that
higher authority is concerned
about progress on the
MONGOOSE program sabotage
operations..... He urged that
“massive activity” be mounted
within the entire MONGOOSE
framework. There was a good
deal of discussion about this,
and General Lansdale said that
another attempt will be made
against the major target which
has been the object of three
unsuccessful missions, and that
approximately six new ones are
in the planning stage.”
President John F.
Kennedy: Cold Warrior
• In 1961, Kennedy anxiously anticipated a summit with Soviet Premier Nikita
• The President started off on the wrong foot by reacting aggressively to a
routine Khrushchev speech on Cold War confrontation in early 1961. The
speech was intended for domestic audiences in the Soviet Union, but Kennedy
interpreted it as a personal challenge. His mistake helped raise tensions going
into the Vienna Summit of June 1961.
• At the summit, Khrushchev got the better of Kennedy informing him of the
Soviet’s intention to sign a treaty with East Berlin—a move to stem the tide of
East Germans—particularly professionals—leaving the Soviet sphere of
influence. In the weeks after, 20,000 people fled from East Berlin to the
western sector.
• Kennedy ordered a military buildup and said that any attack on West Berlin
would be an attack on the U.S. In reaction, the Soviets and East Berlin erected
a wall to stop the flow of people leaving.
Attorney General Bobby Kennedy
Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was 8 years younger than Jack and graduated
from Harvard and Virginia Law School.
He practiced law at the Department of Justice and was counsel to Senate
committees, working with Jack during the rackets hearings against Jimmy
Hoffa and the teamsters.
He worked for Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign in order to
gain experience and managed his brother’s 1960 campaign.
After the victory, Jack named him Attorney General despite the fact that
Bobby wanted to go into private practice. The appointment was criticized as
some felt Bobby had little experience.
Initially Bobby was not among Jack’s closest White House advisors as Bobby
felt the Attorney General should not be a political post.
But after the Bay of Pigs, Jack took his father’s advice and Bobby became
his key adviser for the remainder of his presidency.
During the crisis over Berlin, Bobby operated through a private backchannel
connection to Soviet spy Georgi Bolshakov, relaying important diplomatic
communications between the US and Soviet governments. Bobby helped
set up the Vienna Summit meeting in June 1961 and later helped to defuse
a tank standoff with the Soviets at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie in October.
As the film demonstrates, Bobby’s advice and connections continued to be
crucial during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
LeMay led bombing raids over Germany in WWII and was put in charge of
aerial bombing in the Pacific Theater. He was in charge of the low-flying
bombing runs that destroyed most of 66 Japanese cities. Precise figures are
not available, but the fire-bombing campaign against Japan, directed by
LeMay between March 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August 1945, may
have killed more than 500,000 Japanese civilians and left 5 million homeless.
After the war he placed in charge of the Strategic Air Command—
modernizing for the jet and nuclear age. In 1951 at age 44 became the
youngest person since Ulysses Grant to become a 4-star General. In 1961 he
became Air Force Chief of Staff.
LeMay had pressed for an immediate attack on Cuba as soon as the crisis
began, and he still favored an attack even after the Soviets had withdrawn
their missiles. LeMay told President Kennedy that he considered the
resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis the “greatest defeat in our history.”
He retired from the military in 1965, published an autobiography explaining
that he opposed what he saw as President Johnson’s relatively tame approach
to fighting the Vietnam War (strategic air strikes and ground forces) and
instead famously called for “bomb[ing] them back into the Stone Age.”
President Nixon ultimately undertook a massive bombing campaign that
many felt weakened the Communists and helped bring an end to the war.
LeMay went on to be George Wallace’s vice-presidential running mate during
his 1968 independent bid for president. LeMay died in 1990.
U.S.-Soviet Tensions
• The U.S. had placed nuclear missiles that could strike
Moscow in the UK in 1958 and in Turkey and Italy in 1961.
• In the wake of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban and Soviet
governments secretly began to build bases in Cuba for a
number of nuclear missiles that could strike most of
the continental United States.
• When the U.S. found out, the Cuban Missile Crisis
ensued—generally regarded as the moment in which the
Cold War came closest to turning into a nuclear conflict
with unimaginable casualties and consequences for both
the United States and the Soviet Union.
• Castro later said that he would have ordered nuclear
missile strikes against the U.S. had the U.S. invaded,
even though he knew that Cuba would have been
• In the weeks and months after the agreement, the
Soviets removed the missile systems from Cuba.
• 11 months after the agreement the U.S. deactivated
and removed its missiles from bases in Turkey in
• Another outcome was the establishment of a hotline
between the Soviet Premier and the U.S. President
so that direct phone calls could be made.
• The president’s approval rating increased from 66%
to 77% immediately after the crisis, though the
American people did not know that Kennedy had
agreed to remove the U.S. missiles.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara
• The movie showcases the central role played
by Robert McNamara, then Secretary of
Defense, who kept a close watch over the
U.S. military to avoid starting a war by
• As an officer who served under Curtis LeMay
in WWII, Lieutenant Colonel McNamara was
in charge of evaluating the effectiveness of
American bombing missions making him
intimately familiar with LeMay when both
were serving President Kennedy.
• Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary The Fog of
War: Eleven Lesson from the Life of Robert S.
McNamara details his life and what he
learned along the way.
• McNamara explains that President Kennedy
believed a primary responsibility of a
president—indeed the primary responsibility
of a president—is to keep the nation out of
war, if at all possible.
Why Did the Soviets Put Missiles in Cuba?
• Because the Soviets were evil?
• Because they wanted to destroy
• In 1989 McNamara met with
former Soviet and Cuban officials
and said: “If I had been a Cuban
leader, I think I might have
expected a U.S. invasion. Why?
Because the U.S. had carried out
what I have referred to publicly as
a debacle--the Bay of Pigs
invasion... Secondly, there were
covert operations. The Cubans
knew that. There were covert
operations extending over a long
period of time."

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